Culture & Conversation

Virtuosity Quadrupled

Part of the appeal of this year’s jazz fest is the sheer star power. The calibre and amount of musicians performing has jazz lovers reeling with delight. Last night’s performance by the Monterey Quartet is a perfect example of how one group becomes more than the sum of its parts. Oftentimes, an all-star group that comes together after proving themselves individually can turn into a gong-show; excellence can cancel out excellence rather than feed off it. Not so with Dave Holland’s latest project.

They debuted two years ago at the Monterey Jazz fest and since then these stellar performers have only gotten tighter. Holland’s base is not so much a tone as a groundwork from which whimsical and complex melodies take shape. Chris Potter’s tenor is of course brilliant, but without overpowering the piano and drums. He has a way of easing into melodies and rhythms rather than firmly delineating solos. Eric Harland’s drums are unlike anything I’ve heard before, and that’s saying something. His beats were rich with their own language that the other instruments perfectly translated for the listener. Gonzalo Rubalcaba did just such a translation on the piano with some truly elaborate, but never inscrutable melodies. The richness of these four players together is enviable and their album is a worthwhile addition to any tenor sax or piano or Dave Holland enthusiast.

One song that particularly caught me up was Minotaur, composed by Harland. It began with a multi-layered drum solo that was then braced and levitated by Rubalcaba’s piano. At times in this song, the drums were truly melodic, while the piano delved into its percussive side to support the soaring beats. Holland and Potter joined separately and beautifully intertwined their sounds with the dominant drums. This alone was worth seeing.

A composition called 50, by Rubalcaba, was of a completely different sort, but still perfectly attuned to this group of musicians. The piano has many voices and lots to say, and you can hear the complex passion of Rubalcaba’s musical language when he plays. The bass and tenor playfully danced around each other without ever identifying one particular solo out of elaborate melodies. The song is robust and full with a sheer joy to it that had me wishing they would play it again right away.

This was only one among many shows last night, including The Bad Plus which I was truly sorry not to catch, and of course over the next week there are still plenty more to come. If the choice overwhelms you and you need to narrow it down, make a point of seeing Bill Frisell on July 8th. If you’re looking for hidden gems this year, Vanessa Rodriguez, an extraordinary organ player who hails from right here in Montreal, is hosting an organ jam every night at Brutopia. Vanessa is currently working on her second album and you can hear her exceptional playing accompanied by a variety of musicians every night of the week starting Monday.

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